Rusty Staub played for the Mets from 1972-1975 and again from 1981-1985 and was a very popular player in both stints with the club. While many fans remember him as the team’s plump pinch-hitter in his second go-round, he was the driving offensive force behind the 1973 team that reached the World Series and the Mets might have reached the series the year before if Staub had stayed healthy.
However, Staub was involved in controversial deals both when the Mets first acquired him and when they gave him away. At the time, most Mets fans were okay with both transactions. But with the benefit of hindsight, we know both were bad trades. While everyone thinks immediately that the one that brought him to Shea was the worst of the two, the deal that sent him packing needs to be reviled, too.
After winning the World Series in 1969, the Mets had back-to-back 83-win seasons and third-place finishes. The 1971 squad finished eighth in the 12-team National League with 588 runs scored, 200 behind the league-leading Pirates, who won the National League East. The Mets made two trades to bolster their offense for 1972.
The first was packaging four players to the Angels for Jim Fregosi, who had been a star for a decade in the American League and who was coming into his age 30 season. The other big move sent three players to the Expos for Staub, who like Fregosi had been a very productive player for a number of seasons, but who was even two years younger at age 28.
The story has evolved into Fregosi was a bum who could not handle the move from shortstop to third base. But injuries kept Fregosi from performing as he had in the AL. And what most people forget is that Fregosi actually got off to a hot start that year with the Mets. Through the middle of May, he had an .886 OPS and the Mets had the best record in baseball at 20-7.
The Mets continued to play well until Staub got hit on the hand with a pitch from future teammate George Stone on June 3rd. At the end of that day, the Mets were 31-12. Staub played two more weeks while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. The Mets went 5-8 in that span, as Fregosi slumped and Tommie Agee fell off a cliff.
Staub played just one game the next three months and the Mets fell out of the race.
In 1973, Staub got off to a poor start but when the Mets finished by winning 24 of their final 33 games to win the division, Staub batted .321 with an .892 OPS. His heroics in the NLCS and the World Series further cemented his reputation among Mets fans. After a down year in 1974, Staub rebounded with a strong season in 1975 and finished 14th in the MVP race. The Mets traded him to Detroit in the off-season.
When the Mets acquired Staub, they traded three major league-ready players in Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton. Foli, the top overall pick in the 1968 Draft, was a shortstop who wound up playing for 14 years following the trade, as did Jorgensen, a slick fielding first baseman. The real prize was Singleton, a three-time All-Star and a player who received MVP votes in seven seasons., including a second-place finish in 1979.
In Peter Golenbock’s Amazin’: The Miraculous History of New York’s Most Beloved Baseball Team, former Director of Player Development Whitey Herzog said:
“We made a terrible deal with Montreal, giving up three fine players for Rusty Staub.
“Here I was busting my tail to develop young players, and Don Grant says he doesn’t trust minor leaguers, that we need big names. We had guys in our system who could have helped the Mets dominate baseball in the 1970s – players like Foli, Jorgensen and Amos Otis – and we gave them up.”
Singleton alone was more valuable than Staub, as he amassed a 47.0 fWAR after leaving the Mets. By comparison, Staub posted fWAR of 21.2 after the trade, and only 11.3 while with the Mets. Throw in two guys who played 14 years each and it is a no-brainer.
But would Jorgensen and Foli have made a dent with the Mets? In 1971, Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson each had perhaps their best season in the majors. The 26-year-old Kranepool hit .280, posted a career-high 124 OPS+ and a 2.5 f WAR. The 27-year-old Harrelson made his second straight All-Star team and set a career-high with a 4.4 fWAR.
Given the state of the Mets, how likely was a team that had just traded Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan give a shot to youngsters with established “stars” like Harrelson and Kranepool already in place? And Jorgensen would have had to battle for playing time with John Milner, too.
The point is not that Foli and Jorgensen were not major league quality players, it is just that it was unlikely they would have received much playing time with the 1970s Mets, unless Whitey Herzog was allowed to manage. And while this does not make the first Staub trade a winner, it does lessen some of the impact.
Meanwhile, despite Staub’s strong 1975 season, the Mets finished in third place with an 82-80 record. The big three of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack went 52-34 (.605) but the next best pitcher on the team was Hank Webb and the rest of the staff went 30-46 (.395). Staub fell out of favor with the organization for not going on a trip to Japan and when a rookie outfielder came up and performed well, it made trading Staub for a pitcher an easier sell to the fan base.
Mike Vail was the rookie who came up and impressed at the end of 1975. During the season, he was frequently mentioned by both the newspapers and the TV broadcasts, something that was a rarity for the time. Vail hit .342 at Triple-A Tidewater, came up and had a 23-game hitting streak and batted .302 in 38 games with the Mets, leaving everyone convinced he was a future star.
Fans were disappointed to see Staub go, but figured that Vail would be an adequate replacement and that veteran Mickey Lolich would give the Mets four top starters. Of course, Lolich was way past his prime and Staub went out and put up three more nice years with Detroit, finishing fifth in the MVP voting in 1978 when he drove in 121 runs.
But to make matters worse, Vail got hurt during the offseason before 1976, breaking his ankle in a basketball game. He played in just 53 games for the 1976 Mets and was just as big of a disappointment as Lolich.
Staub went on to post 10.8 WAR after being traded by the Mets, while Lolich delivered around 1/5 of that value.
Lolich pitched about as well as an out-of-shape 35-year old possibly could have for the Mets in 1976. While he went 8-13, he did have a 3.22 ERA along with 18 Quality Starts and was the #4 pitcher the Mets so desperately needed in 1975. But he was no ace. Lolich sat out the next season before coming back to pitch two more years for the Padres. Not exactly the return the Mets were hoping for from the 1968 World Series hero.
But the Mets traded Staub to create a place for Vail. Yet if we knew then what we know now, there is no way that would have happened, at least not with a competent front office. Vail made headlines with the hitting streak and the sparkling average, but he rarely walked, had little power and even less speed. He was a one-trick pony and even that was a mirage. Vail batted .302 for the Mets in 1975 but he did it with a .377 BABIP.
While Vail had a .326 lifetime BABIP, he was not a good bet to come within 25 points of his debut season BABIP in 1976, even if he did not get injured during the off-season. He was a .275 hitter with no power, not anything to get excited about, much less trade one of your top players to create a spot for him to play.
The first Staub trade is still the worst one, although the Mets got more value out of it than they did the second Staub deal. Both times the Mets gave up the best player in the deal, although with Singleton they gave up a guy at the start of a Hall of Very Good career.
But the second trade deserves more scorn than it gets. It is rightly derided for who they gave up and who they received in return. But the Mets should be docked, too, for thinking that Vail could replace the production of Staub